Will the "granny tax" damage Boris Johnson?

"It is not my blooming Budget," says Mayor, distancing himself from pensioner cuts and even scrappin

For the last year at least, Boris Johnson has used just about every avenue available to him to publically lobby for a reduction in the top rate of tax.
Wednesday's Budget was a victory, then -- or was it? In an interview with the Guardian today, though unapologetic about his support for the new 45p tax band, Johnson refused to take any credit: "I am not the Chancellor".

Post-Budget polls show that 55 per cent of Londoners oppose the tax cut, versus just 35 per cent who support it. Johnson maintains his defence of the lower tax band, reiterating that "London has got to be tax-competitive". So why the reticence on taking credit for it?

The attack line adopted by Ken Livingstone, Johnsons' rival in the London mayoral race, holds some clues. The so-called "granny tax" was the lone measure in the Budget that had not been leaked in advance, and it caused uproar (you can see the almost universally negative front pages here). Livingstone's team has been quick to link the freeze in pensioner allowance to the cut in the top rate of tax -- a canny move, since 410,000 Londoners are set to lose an average of £83 a year -- a third of the 1.2 million Londoners aged over 60. These older voters traditionally support the Conservatives.

Johnson is nothing if not a consummate politician, and refused to be drawn on the question of the granny tax in his Guardian interview, instead emphasising his commitment to freedom passes, and distancing himself from the Budget entirely:

It may be some aspects of the Budget are not going down very well. I am not convinced that I will be necessarily associated with those measures. It is not my blooming Budget and it is not necessarily one that I would have written. There is plenty we can do in London to help the poorest and the needy.

But can he avoid being associated with the policies of central government? Elsewhere, he is keen to make much of his links -- his campaign material states that he is "the only candidate who can secure a better deal for Londoners from No 10".

Johnson's appeal has always rested on his reputation as a maverick, and the ability that goes with this to pick and choose which policies he gets behind. However, as my colleague Rafael Behr argued recently, this may be slipping:

Last time around, Boris was the challenger, which suited his self-image as a bit of a maverick, an eccentric, a TV personality and so, crucially, not a typical Tory. Some of that image remains, but the mantle of office has necessarily imposed a degree of discipline on the mayor. He still gets away with more mannered dishevelment than is usual for someone in his position, but there is an extent to which his pre-election persona has been absorbed into a more conventional political identity. Or, to put it in cruder terms, he is becoming more Tory than Boris.

In that context, his association with the City, Big Finance and the incumbent government could do him immense harm if -- as the RBS bonus episode suggests -- there is an appetite for some populist left noises in the campaign.

The latest polls show Johnson regaining his lead over Livingstone -- but can he maintain this as unpopular measures start to bite?

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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